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Review of Big Bear by Rudy Wiebe

Rudy Wiebe. Big Bear. Extraordinary Canadians Series. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008. pp. 208.

Rudy Wiebe’s Big Bear is the author’s contribution to John Ralston Saul’s “Extraordinary Canadians” series. Out of the fifteen biographies in the series, Big Bear is the only First Nation’s person to be profiled. This is particularly notable given that Saul’s recent book A Fair Country specifically argues for the importance of Indigenous knowledge in shaping Canada’s unique historical consciousness.

In the 200 pages of Big Bear, Wiebe tells the story of Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa), from the carefree days of his childhood until his death in 1888 following imprisonment. The first chapter opens with the striking sentence, “This story happened more than a century ago, but it is still going on” (1). With this, Wiebe immediately signals to the reader that he is challenging individualistic interpretations of history, interpretations which are colonizing insofar as they undermine indigenous interpretations of history in which the individual cannot be removed from the collective. Wiebe is thus asserting that the story of Big Bear is the story both of one man and of a whole people, of an individual and of a collective.

The majority of the book covers the time when Big Bear was the chief of his band, including the development of his political and spiritual leadership, his thoughtfulness in resisting making a treaty too rashly, his various interactions with colonial authorities, and the gross misunderstandings and misinterpretations of him by the white media. Wiebe constructs a complicated and profound character, a man with great physical and spiritual strength, derived on the one hand from having overcome smallpox as a child, and on the other from having been visited by the Great Parent of Bear during his adolescent spiritual quest.

What is most immediately striking about Wiebe’s telling of Big Bear’s life is his blending of two types of history. On the one hand, Wiebe clearly draws upon typical Western facts-and-dates history. But on the other, in his writing style and in his approach to what counts as important and what counts as valid, he is clearly drawing upon an Indigenous storytelling tradition. The latter of these two, I think, is what makes the book more interesting, and what raises the more interesting questions.

Wiebe, throughout the book, attaches great significance to Chief’s Son’s Hand, which is the main spiritual object in Big Bear’s life. It is a bundle of sacred objects, including a large bear paw, which was revealed to him by the Great Parent of Bear during his vision quest. The significance that Wiebe describes Chief’s Son’s Hand as having is spiritual in nature, but is also historical—Wiebe makes it clear that Chief’s Son’s Hand is an object of great historical importance not just because it belonged to Big Bear, who is an important historical figure, but because of its great spiritual significance in its own right. Wiebe does not trivialize or denigrate this importance. Nor does he qualify his description of the importance of Chief’s Son’s Hand:

[Great Parent of Bear] instructed [Big Bear] how to make the core of his sacred bundle. All his life, this sacred object was to be his sign that his prayer had been answered, that, under the Creator, the most powerful Spirit known to his People had come, and would come again, to help him whenever he prayed for guidance and strength, especially in war. (13)

Though Wiebe is a writer of historical fiction, his description of the powers of the sacred object is meant to be an accurate description, not fiction.

Any person writing about Indigenous peoples in Canada, and elsewhere, must be scrutinized with reference to the relationship of their work to the struggle for decolonization. Dawn Martin-Hill (2008) reminds us that, “a lot of past research has reduced Indigenous people to objects and dehumanized them to the point that they cannot recognize themselves. Today, part of Indigenous resistance is to speak and represent self, with no ‘expert’ Eurocentric analysis and authority”.1 With this in mind, it is important to ask ‘Who is Rudy Wiebe?’ And, ‘Who benefits from his writing?’

Weibe, born in 1934, is a white male Canadian of Mennonite descent who grew up in Saskatchewan, not far from the area where Big Bear was born. He has completed formal training in theology and has been a successful fiction writer, winning a Governor General’s prize for his 1973 book The Temptations of Big Bear. Wiebe is also the co-author of Stolen Life: The Journey of Cree Woman, which traces the life of the book’s co-author, Yvonne Johnson, who is Big Bear’s granddaughter, and who served 17 years in prison for murder. In short, Wiebe is a non-Indigenous writer who is sympathetic to the anti-colonial struggles of Indigenous peoples in Canada. He is also a writer with wide appeal, and who is in a position of being able to represent Indigenous peoples to a broad, mostly non-Indigenous, audience. As well, in his previous books he has worked closely with Indigenous communities, and seems to have made more than a token effort to understand historical narratives based on Indigenous knowledge.

That Wiebe is a non-Indigenous person writing in a style that attempts to make Indigenous versions of history more acceptable to a mainstream audience puts him in a delicate position. He treads the line between cultural appropriation and cultural solidarity. But, to suggest that no non-Indigenous person can or should write about indigenous subjects also seems problematic—it suggests that there is a line in the sand that cannot or should not be crossed. Wiebe’s work plays a role in encouraging contact with and understanding of Indigenous understandings of history. He embraces the complexity of the characters but also the complexity of history itself, including the complexity of combining Indigenous and Western historical methods. Wiebe is attempting to transcend the modernist dichotomy of fact versus fiction; he rejects this dichotomy because he knows that it does not exist in the intellectual tradition of the Cree, and thus it is not relevant to a telling of Big Bear’s story.

  1. Dawn Martin-Hill. The Lubicon Lake Nation: Indigenous Knowledge and Power, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 47. []

An Essay on Indigenous and Non-Indigenous views of Place

What role do places have in defining us, in making us who we are, and in reminding us who we are? In this essay, I want to explore what differentiates indigenous and non-indigenous experiences of place. Indigenous cultures in North America and the people who constitute them are generally seen to be intricately involved with place. What is the basis for this generalization of Indigenous culture? Where are there divergences and meetings between indigenous and non-indigenous relationships with place. Particularly, in thinking and reading about ‘place’ there are a few themes that emerge: the past, identity, learning and knowing, responsibility and morality, and wisdom. I argue that what differentiates indigenous and non-indigenous conceptions of place is the role and importance of building relationships. That being said, though I say ‘argue’, I want to try and get away from an oppositional approach, by which I do not at all want to presume that there is or could be a binary opposition between two generalized monolithic views of place.

Keith Basso (1996) writes about the connection between wisdom and places in the culture, or the way of being (the ontology), of the Western Apache. By looking at Basso’s work and the work of other indigenous authors I want to try to sketch an idea of what place is in indigenous philosophy. I mean place in a very broad sense, one that encompasses the landscape and all that goes into it. For example, my dad used to have a home on top of a hill outside of Peterborough. When I think of or write about that ‘place’ I am referring to the house, the locations of the different trees, the fences, the fields, the view in the distance, etc. But I also am referring to the memory of how the trees used to look, the memory of a tree before it became a stump, the knowledge that the field is also where baseball games happened, the lawn where parties happened, and the feelings associated with these events. So when I say place I mean the physical objects that make up that place but also the effects, emotional or otherwise, of what is known to have happened in that place. I think this could be called a holistic view of place, because it seeks to include as many aspects as possible in understanding place, rather than trying to distil an essential definition. I think that this is the same as what Brian Yazzie Burkhart (2004) means when he writes that “in American Indian philosophy we must maintain our connectedness, we must maintain our relations, and never abandon them in search of understanding, but rather find understanding through them” (p. 25). And so in this sense I intend to not restrict what I mean by ‘place.’

In writing about indigenous philosophy “in general” it seems to me that there is a risk of essentializing or generalizing the diversity of views found across Native American groups. That being said, different indigenous authors do write of a general Native American world view as being something that we can talk about without it being an act of colonializing generalization. For example, Vine Deloria Jr. (1999) asserts that it is possible to both recognize the diversity of First Nations and to advance ideas about a general Native American worldview: “two great truths exist side by side: (1) Indian nations are quite distinct from each other and (2) there is a great unanimity among native peoples when they express their views on the natural world and on the behaviour of humans within that world” (p. v, see also Smith, 2005, p. 117). So, keeping in mind the diversity of Native American cultures, it is possible to talk about indigenous views of place in a general way. As well, there is a risk that as a result of being afraid of generalizing, essentializing, or misrepresenting, no work will actually be done on discussing what constitutes ‘indigenous philosophy’ or ‘indigenous thought.’ I have these caveats in mind as I proceed.

Connections to place are fundamental to Indigenous ways of being. Marilyn Notah Verney (Diné) (2004) poses the question, “what is American Indian philosophy?” and, in trying to answer this question, her first principle is that relationships to the land must be central to any conception of Indigenous philosophy: “To understand American Indian Philosophy one must first understand our spiritual relationship, our connection with the land” (p. 134). Where does this spiritual connection come from and what is it? N. Scott Momaday writes:

From the time the Indian first set foot upon this continent, he centered his life in the natural world. He is deeply invested in the earth, committed to it both in his consciousness and in his instinct. The sense of place is paramount. Only in reference to the earth can he persist in his identity. (qtd. in Basso, p. 35)

So, deep spiritual connection is the result of the indigenous person centering her life in the natural world. As a result of this centering, the person’s identity, indeed her consciousness, is fundamentally tied to places. But still, what is this spiritual connection to the land; how does this centering in the natural world function? Basso writes of the connections between place, the past, identity and knowledge:

For Indian men and women, the past lies embedded in features of the earth—in canyons and lakes, mountains and arroyos, rocks and vacant fields—which together endow their land with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the ways they think. Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one’s position in the larger scheme of things, including one’s own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person. (Basso, p. 34, italics mine)

A person knows herself through knowing the land, and the land is the primary record of the past. Stories of the land, of specific places, pass on memories and knowledge of the past because they are tied to the land which, though it changes, is much more enduring than the lives of humans. And because of this, the land becomes the ultimate frame of reference. As Deloria, Jr. says, “American Indians hold their lands—places—as having the highest possible meaning, and all their statements are made with this reference point” (qtd. in Basso, p. 37). In an oral culture, the land becomes the ‘reference section’ for a community’s knowledge. Increasing your vocabulary then requires increasing your knowledge of places, your recognition of places. But, how does one have ‘knowledge of places’? What do I mean by this?

I think that in Native American philosophy the origins of ideas matter a lot more than they do in the western intellectual tradition. Indeed, one of the more exciting political-philosophical movements in the 20th century in the west is social constructivism, which seeks to gain knowledge and truth through tracing the genealogy of ideas back to their origins. The meanings of concepts like ‘freedom,’ ‘citizenship,’ ‘terrorism,’ etc., become taken for granted very quickly by the general public, and we forget the origin of these ideas as they become abstract concepts. Vine Deloria, Jr. (2004) contends that this does not happen in Indigenous cultures because of “the requirement that Indians place on themselves to have some kind of empirical verification for statements [which] precludes them from making the kind of statements the West takes as knowledge, and it keeps their minds open to receive the unexpected and to remember it” (p. 7). At first it may seem odd that Deloria, Jr. seems to be calling Indigenous epistemology some kind of strict empiricism akin to what was attempted by logical positivists. I do not think that this is what Deloria, Jr. means though. Rather, if every belief has to be justified by an appeal to experience or empirical statements, this requires physical objects, i.e. places, to play a major role. What role then do places play in Indigenous epistemology?

Basso explains how for the Western Apache (at least), the relationship with place goes further than identity and the past, moving to wisdom and morality. He says:

The knowledge on which wisdom depends is gained from observing different places ([so as] to recall them quickly and clearly), learning their Apache names (thus to identify them in spoken discourse and in song), and reflecting upon the traditional narratives that underscore the virtues of wisdom by showing what can happen when its facilitating conditions are absent. (p. 134)

So, wisdom depends upon knowledge, and knowledge depends upon place. Place—the land—is a medium for learning, for knowing, and I think that this is what Deloria, Jr. means by his empiricism—that knowledge is more valuable when it is rooted in something observable, i.e. the land. Earlier I made an analogy between the land and the reference section (of a library), and I think that this analogy can be expanded here. To learn more things about more places is like reading more books. Places are like books—the more you can read and whose contents you can remember and utilize, the more knowledgeable you are. And so places as holders of knowledge become especially important in an oral tradition because, not having written documents, places help stories to be remembered, to be passed on. The oral tradition itself, as opposed to a written tradition, is important because, “once ideas are written down, in black and white, those ideas become objects, something to be studied and taken apart. This process of writing separates our being in the world, an we can lose touch and become isolated from all our relations.” (Verney p. 138) On the other hand, stories which are about the land or take place on the land, and which, because they are not written down, cannot be dissected and thus encourage first hand place-based experiences. More importantly, stories in an oral tradition put you in contact with ancestors who have gone before in the same place.

Knowledge and collective memory are passed down not only through stories but also through ceremony. Gregory Cajete (2004) writes that, “Ceremony us both a context for transferring knowledge and a way to remember the responsibility we have to our relationships with life. Native ceremony is associated with maintaining and restoring balance, renewal, cultivating relationship, and creative participation with nature.” (p. 54) ‘Nature’, I think, encompasses place and all that happens in places. As well, ceremonies are often tied to particular places—places that have an important history and add meaning and significance to the ceremonies. Maureen Smith (2004) writes that, “Most tribal religions were land-based, with their cosmologies founded on the land, water, sky, and all of creation. Religion was geographically bound to sacred spots integral to spiritual practice” (p. 117). To explore the significance of ceremony and place further, a connection to morality and responsibility can be made. Ceremonies, in so far as they are about building relationships with other beings, involve strengthening or deepening social practices. John Dufour (2004) writes about how indigenous morality and responsibility are related to epistemology in the sense that ‘having beliefs’ is a morally regulated action—it is possible to have a morally irresponsible belief. Dufour says, “if systematized thinking about understanding or belief involves social practices, then if we are concerned about particular normative merits for belief or understanding, such merits will probably be rooted in such organized social practices” (p. 35). How this relates to ‘place’ is that if there is such a thing as “morally responsible believing” (p. 34) or understanding, and this believing is tied to social practices, like ceremonies, and ceremonies happen in places and involve attachment to places, then responsible, i.e. moral, learning depends on a having a certain, socially validated relationship to place.

I hope then that up to this point I have been able to sketch a image of the role of ‘place’ in indigenous culture in general. It is an image that involves interconnections between identity, collective memory, oral tradition, learning, knowing, morality and responsibility, all of which are rooted in some important way in places—in the land.

In thinking about indigenous conceptions of place I could not help but try to relate them to my own experiences of place. I recently returned to Peterborough, Ontario, the city where I passed my childhood. Since returning, after an absence of several years, as I have passed by familiar places I have been flooded by memories from childhood and youth of events, stories, and lesson-learning that occurred in these places. One evening I went walking through my old neighbourhood, and to the park behind the house where I grew up. What follows are my thoughts and reflections that evening; they are meant to help in this exercise of conceptualizing my relation to place.

I am visiting my old neighbourhood. I came in up behind the Fairhaven retirement home, where I played as a kid. It has changed a lot, but it is still a wild place there. Scraggly trees and thick vines on ground. Makeshift forts, garbage, a ruin of an old structure. Grassy bits in other places, and dried out waist-high plants that have burs that stick to your clothes. Another section there has little sumacs, with their fuzzy bark. Then there is the big hill. Then more tangle and then the road and it’s over. All of this was familiar to me. I expected it to be there and it was.

Heading the way I used to walk from middle school I reach my mom’s old house. New owners. New cars. Stacked wood. They are settled in. I looked in from a distance, from the edge of the property line and then continued to the park behind the house.

I don’t have a name for this place. I am here trying to think about ‘place’ and how this place, so strong in my memory of childhood, affects me, has affected me, continues to be a part of me. I don’t know when the last time I came back here was. Five years? But, I am surprised to feel mostly sadness, or loss, or perhaps it is absence. Maybe I am missing the people who made this place with me, or for me. It seems ghostly right now. It is cold, around zero, and getting dark. The sun has set. There is no one else around.

I went to bigrock, down in the brush by the creek, but it is not as big as I remember it being. I couldn’t get into it the way I used to. The entrance was overgrown. I had to go around. Everything seemed smaller. Especially the rock. I remember it being huge. But still it is all very familiar. The way the stream runs and curves. The vines above the rock. All very familiar. It was the same with my mom’s house, in a way. Familiar, but now someone else owns the house, so I can’t enter. In the same way I couldn’t enter bigrock the way I entered it as I did when I was a kid. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel like it was my place anymore. I was just visiting.

On the way here, on the trail behind Peter Robinson College, pointing to the ditch a man said to his granddaughter as I passed, “See that computer monitor down there? People shouldn’t do that should they?” Will she remember that spot and that lesson together?

Farther along the trail, crossing Antrim St., a teenager pulled up in a truck, jumped out and started running down the trail after a girl. She saw him and started running too. He stopped, giving up, looking upset and desperate. Will he remember this spot as a lesson in losing love?

What do I remember about this place, this tuft of wildness behind my childhood home? Lessons learned? Some, but mostly just snippets. Partial pictures of hiding in the grass, breaking rocks, catching crayfish, falling into the creek, sandwiches on white buns, no parents. I remember one incident well. We got caught throwing stones at the machinery on the roof of the strip-mall that is below the park. The owner of the convenience store yelled at us, and chased us. Someone lost a shoe and he grabbed it, using it to force us all back in order for its owner to reclaim it. After that I never contemplated damaging other people’s property for fun.

This was our world, our space. What is it now? It doesn’t even have a name. There is no one around. The swings and the slide are gone. All that’s left is the one lonely bench where I’m sitting.

A friend talked to me about ceremony and how that is what ties indigenous people, his people, to the land, in time and over time. What ceremony do I have to connect me to this place? Sitting alone on a bench in the cold looking at the 200 ft. t.v. tower in the distance on the hill, that broadcasts to the houses around me. This is sad. I have armchair philosophy; bench-thinking solitude.

What do I learn about my own relationship with places from these reflections? My experiences that evening seem to have some of the characteristics of ‘place’ that were highlighted as being important in Indigenous thought, but in a watered-down form. Of course this exercise is ‘flawed’ from the beginning in the sense that what I reflected upon that evening could not possibly be taken as an archetype for all experiences of place of non-indigenous people. Indeed, they cannot even necessarily be taken as representative of how I always relate to place, for I have different experiences of place at different times, and the influence of the time of day, the lack of company, and the temperature demonstrate how my reflections are not absolute but are relative. But these reflections can provide a way to think about at least one instance of an experience with place, in order that I might make comparisons with what I have previously written about indigenous concepts of place.

In terms of identity, I see my conception of myself as having been formed, to a large extent, in that park behind my mother’s old house. When I think about what makes the ‘me’ that I am now the same ‘me’ that I was when I was six and playing in that park I think back to activities mentioned in my reflections—the breaking rocks, catching crayfish, etc. And, I try to distil something fundamental about me out of the way that I approached those activities. I try to seek out the character traits that I have held throughout my life through trying to see them in those activities. But this attempt to distil something fundamental seems to be counter to what Burkhart says about an indigenous approach being to seek understanding by embracing as widely as possible. Though my ‘becoming who I am’ occurred in that park, I‘m not sure that I think of it as being a part of me beyond just having a sentimental fondness for it.

In terms of collective memory and oral tradition, as is clear in my reflections, I visited that place alone, and remarked upon a sense of absence that I was feeling. It may be that if I were to visit the park again, but this time with my childhood friends, it would be an entirely different experience. Perhaps all of our individual connections to the place would be strengthened by hearing the memories of the group. This would be a process of strengthening relationships with each other and that place, akin to what Cajete attributes to ceremony, though in this case it would be much more shallow. And if this meeting of childhood friends were to take place, we would not be feverishly writing down all that was being said. Rather we would be telling stories, stories intimately attached to specific places. Bigrock would take on greater and greater significance through the telling of more and more stories of events that took place there. This seems to highlight the social characteristic of indigenous relations to place.

In terms of learning and knowing, for indigenous philosophy it seems that learning or coming to know can only happen via places, or at least this is the type of knowing that builds and respects relations. In my walk back to my old neighbourhood I observed two interesting interactions, one between a man and his granddaughter and the other between two upset teenagers. Both of these events seem to be obvious cases of learning a lesson, in the first case a lesson in not littering, and in the latter a lesson in the fleetingness of love. Both of these events, as all events do, occurred in a particular place; but, will the lessons learned be tied to these places through what Basso describes as a process of observing, learning names, and reflecting? I do sometimes think back to the stone throwing property damage incident that I described, but what is lacking is the name. As Deloria, Jr. says, “most American Indian tribes embrace “spatial conceptions of history” in which places and their names—and all that these may symbolize—are accorded central importance” (qtd. in Basso, p. 34). The reason that names, as labels, are important is that they only come to be required in social situations, i.e. when there is more than one person. Naming allows people to refer to the same object or place. And, as Dufour has pointed out, in social situations morality comes into play. In indigenous philosophy, I have argued, morality requires a certain socially validated relationship to place, and this validification comes (at least) through ceremony. In my reflections, though there are examples of lesson learning that relates to places, the lack of naming of these places and the lack of socially validated process of believing shows a difference between indigenous and non-indigenous approaches.

What conclusions can be drawn about the differences between indigenous and non-indigenous conceptions of place? I think that what underlies the differences between the two is the idea of relations—with other humans, with the land, with ancestors, and all other beings. The non-indigenous penchant for abstraction facilitates a lack of being grounded in the ‘beingness’ of all beings. As Marilyn Notah Verney says, “We came to be from within the womb of Mother Earth. Mother Earth is home for all living beings: human people, animal people, plant people, everything in the universe” (p. 134)

Works Cited

Basso, Keith. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Burkhart, Brian Yazzie. “What Coyote and Thales Can Teach Us: An Outline American Indian Epistemology,” in Anne Waters ed., American Indian Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Cajete, Gregory. “Philosophy of Native Science,” in Anne Waters ed., American Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Deloria Jr., Vine. preface to Norbert S. Hill, Words of Power: Voices of Indian Fulcrum Publishing, 1999.

Deloria, Jr. Vine. “Philosophy and the Tribal Peoples,” in Anne Waters ed., Indian Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

DuFour, John. “Ethics and Understanding,” in Anne Waters ed., American Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Smith, Maureen E. “Crippling the Spirit, Wounding the Soul: Native American Spiritual And Religious Suppression,” in Anne Waters ed., American Indian Thought. Malden,MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Verney, Marilyn Notah. “On Authenticity,” in Anne Waters ed., American Indian Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Gerald Friesen – Citizen and Nation

Citizens and Nation by Gerald Friesen is an attempt to conceptualize the Canadian nation at the end of the twentieth century in such a way as to weave together the different strands of our collective past into a unifying national story. Friesen sees a place, Canada, whose present situation as a modern, industrialized, urban nation seems so far from the experiences of indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans, and from the experiences of early settlers. And he worries about the later twentieth century intellectual trends of post-modernism, post-structuralism, which threaten to “de-mean” (eliminate the value of) or dilute any common historical myths that we have of Canada (as a northern nation, as a British-French-Aboriginal nation, as a multicultural nation, etc.). In order to overcome this quagmire Friesen attempts to meld together the idea of modes of communication and economic production as determinants of identity with enquiries into the relationships between cultural history and perceptions of time and space. I argue that in undertaking such a broad and nationalistic project, Friesen glosses over many of the schisms that have existed and do exist within Canadian society. More troubling though for Friesen’s project than this political critique is the argument that it is precisely these internal conflicts and complexities that make Canada interesting and which make a unique Canadian identity possible.

Friesen differentiates four “epochs of time-space dimensions” (224) which correlate to four dominant communications systems, which in turn, in the spirit of Innis, relate to different economic modes of production. Each of these epochs is meant to create its own type of culture, and each epoch corresponds roughly to a broad time period in the history of northern North America. What then are these four epochs? They are the oral-traditional, the textual-settler, the print-capitalist, and the screen-capitalist. Friesen believes that it is possible to synthesize these historical epochs in order to gain a better understanding of current day “Canadian public consciousness” (224). The key to this project for him is to look at the lives and experiences of ‘common people’ living during these periods. To this end, he chooses several individuals and families to serve as archetypes for different periods. For the oral-traditional society Friesen uses the documentary film Summer of the Loucheux: Portrait of a Northern Indian Family to explore the lives of the Andre family, a Gwich’in family living along the Mackenzie River in the 1980s. For the textual-settler society he relies upon the memoirs of Elizabeth Goudie, who along with her husband, a trapper, spends most of her life in the remote areas of Labrador in the early to mid 1900s, before eventually relocating into town. The print-capitalist society is shown through the memoires of Phyllis Knight, a German-Canadian immigrant who came to Canada in the late 1920s, and along with her husband struggled along in numerous low-paying wage-earning jobs. Finally, Friesen introduces Frank and Roseanne, two mid- to late-twentieth century middle-class workers, Rosie as a teacher and Frank as a mid-level employee of Imperial Oil.

In attempting to save the “citizen’s historical reflection” from the “utter instability, even unknowability, of individuals and communities,” (218) proposed by post-modernists and post-structuralists, Friesen ignores important aspects of the history of Canada and of the people who have and do live here. Specifically, I want to challenge Friesen’s portrayals of Indigenous peoples, ‘common people’ and citizens, and the State.

Friesen’s project in the first two chapters, on oral-traditional societies, is to explain how “there remains today an element in Canadian life that is Aboriginal in character” (13), despite the textual and capitalist nature of today’s society. Friesen wonders how the continuity of Indigenous culture has been maintained, and his answer is that it has been maintained through a “political determination to survive,” (47) rather than through some inherently durable quality to Indigenous cultures or worldviews. More specifically the survival of Indigenous cultures is due to their determination to communicate their political struggle to each new generation. Friesen attributes this determination to a “ sheer stubborn immovability” (47) on the part of Indigenous peoples. It seems slightly offensive to say that ‘stubbornness’ is the reason that Indigenous cultures and languages have survived through centuries of aggressive colonialist and assimilationist tactics by the French, British, and Canadian governments.

Any writing on Indigenous people in Canada should be a part of a decolonizing project. Though Friesen is clearly sympathetic to and even supportive of the Indigenous struggles for, as Haudenoshaunee scholar Taiaiake Alfred would say, peace, power, and righteousness, his approach to Indigenous history undermines what, I assume, are his good intentions. Friesen’s approach to history is not an Indigenous approach, but rather is the approach of a Western-trained academic. This becomes problematic when he tries to slot the history of Indigenous peoples in northern North America into his four-epoch theory. Though he may accurately describe an Indigenous approach to history as one that “associate[s] empirical fact with myths as inseparable parts of a single sphere and discuss[es] human and animal or plant life as elements that exist on the same plane as the dream world,” (220) Friesen nonetheless does not himself feel obliged to approach Indigenous history through this sort of Indigenous view. Thus he risks being another White outsider writing about Indigenous people from a distance, a position which places him distinctly in line with the colonial historiography of Natives in Canada.

Friesen is aware of his position when he says that his account of the survival and influence on Canadian identity of Indigenous culture is a “European-Canadian explanation.” (54) Instead of engaging with Indigenous communities and ways of being, he writes that “it is not easy to penetrate the actual workings of the aboriginal political community” (47). It is certainly easier to take his approach, which is that watching a “short, quiet film offers enough to construct a history of Aboriginal people in northern North America” (17). Winona Wheeler describes this problem well:

Conventional oral history interview methods do not meet [for example] Cree standards. Clearly there is a direct correlation between the depth and quality of knowledge a student acquires and the level of reciprocal trust and respect cultivated between the teacher and student. This is why the practice of racing into Indian country with tape recorder in hand and taking data meets with little success. This is also why historians who read interview summaries in distant offices are deaf to significant events from Indigenous perspectives. (Wheeler 201)

To get, or rather to be given, the kind of information required to tell a history that is meant to be part of a decolonizing project requires investing significant time into fostering a relationship between student and teacher (and for a university academic it also requires having the humility to become a student). And even worse for Friesen, “because Indian oral tradition blends the material, spiritual, and philosophical together into one historical entity, it would be a clear violation of the culture from which it is derived if well-meaning scholars were to try to demythologize it, in order to give it greater validity in the Western sense of historiography” (Harvey Knight qtd. in Winona Wheeler 202). Friesen acknowledges this blending, and yet in his own historiographical work does not partake of it.

Friesen frequently writes of both ‘common people’ and citizens in ways that I believe are problematic. He says that ‘common people’ are those who “feel that they are responding to events around them rather than initiating the changes” (6). This, I think, makes Friesen’s ‘common people’ different from the type of people portrayed, for example, by Zinn in A People’s History of America, or by Morton in A People’s History of England. The subjects of these ‘people’s histories’ are people who work to make changes around them but whose changes the elites of society actively try to prevent, and whose historical significance elites try to suppress.

Friesen does portray ‘common people’ as contributing to political actions, like the “thunder gusts” in the 1800s when many people struggled hard for democratic representation and responsible government, and like the political protests that Phyllis Knight participated in in the 1930s. But he portrays political actions like these, when he writes about them at all, as “comforting” (219) or even worse he construes them as intentionally contributing the building of the nation when in fact they were meant to challenge the nation as an entity controlled by elites. Put another way, political protests, like the 1838 rebellions, like the On-To-Ottawa trek, like the FTAA protests, were not shows of solidarity with the elite in the mutual project of constructing the nation. They were demands that the state, as the medium of class power, be given over by the elite in order to better serve the collective good—and not that ‘the nation’, as the locus of Canadian identity, be given over. This leads me to wonder then what, or who, Friesen means by ‘citizens’, for it is certainly true that Indigenous peoples in political struggle, radicals, labour organizers, interned Japanese, and others did not always identify with the Canadian State.

Citizenship is increasingly used as an implement of power by the Canadian state in order to differentiate those it deems (economically and politically) desirable from those it deems undesirable. Recent works by Himani Bannerji, Nandita Sharma, and others have exploded the myth of Canadian multiculturalism and have explained how citizenship policy in Canada has been used to widen class, gender, and racial divides. On a different angle, work by Engin Isin and Greg Neilsen and others has challenged the notion of citizenship as something that is bestowed by states. Rather, Isin puts forth the notion of ‘acts of citizenship’ through which “regardless of status or substance, subjects constitute themselves as citizens or, better still, as those to whom the right to have rights is due” (Isin 2). In this way citizenship becomes something that is enacted, and that is taken, and that works in defiance of the ability of the State to privilege certain people over others. Friesen’s book, though admittedly written before the major works by these authors, does not conceive of citizenship in this way, despite claiming to “assert the creativity of every citizen, not just the powerful few” (228).

Friesen’s telling of Canadian history also glosses over the, often negative, role that the Canadian state has played, thereby supporting the status quo image of the Canadian state as benign. He makes little or no mention of the residential school system, the interning of Japanese, the exploitation of Chinese labourers to build railways, the deaths of hundreds of workers in unsafe worksites, the deportation of (often racially targeted) radicals and progressives, the unnecessary imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970, etc. If we want to be able to be proud of Canada as a nation, or as a collective then we must be able to come to terms with these events in our history in order that we might become justifiably proud. But in order to do this we must first halt the destructive actions that the Canadian state continues to support. Why is our military still killing people in Afghanistan under a mission that is not run by the UN? Why is Canada allowed to be the home base for the majority of global mining companies that wreak havoc around the world? Why does our government support the government of Israeli and punish those who do not? Why does the state hold out against signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? And what of recent immigrants, who despite having higher levels of education find themselves working lower paying and more precarious jobs than those who were born here. Friesen claims that his book is “about today’s world. It is a history of the present” (4). He claims in his conclusion that the book is “political because it contributes to a community discussion about politics and the responsibilities of citizenship” (217). I ask, if Friesen claims that his book is a political one, and is about the day-today lives of common people, why does the book not issue a call to action for political action against the supporters of neoliberal policies that make the lives of ‘common people’, in Canada and in the rest of the world, so much worse?

Friesen positions himself as a champion of importance and impact of common people in shaping Canadian history. I do not disagree with this. But if by ‘common people’ we mean those who are passive with respect to historical forces and who make their contribution by populating the mainstream, these are hardly the people I look to as monumental figures. Those who struggle for change in anonymity, those who demand their rights rather than waiting for them to conferred, those who demand that the government be accountable to the people and not to corporations and the wealthy, these are the people who have held Canada together as a nation by refusing to let it be mediocre and repressive. Friesen “contends that a crucial strength of Canada lies in its common people” (228). I contend that a crucial strength of Canada lies in the politically aware and progressive people who work hard to convince others that they can be more than just common people.

Cited:

Friesen, Gerald. Citizens and Nation: An Essay on History, Communication, and Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Isin, Engin, and Greg Nielsen. Acts of Citizenship. London: Zed Books, 2008.

Wheeler, Winona. “Reflections on the Social Relations of Indigenous Oral Histories,” in Walking a Tightrope: Indigenous Peoples and Their Representations. David McNabb, Ute Lischke editors. Wilfred Laurier Press, 2005.

Colonialism and benevolence

“From the margins of colonialism emerges an anger, even a hatred, for the people who opress, exploit and commit crimes of genocide and who remain steeped in denial, or worse, benevolence.”

-Dawn Martin-Hill in “She No Speaks and Other Colonial Constructs of the ‘Traditional Woman’” ch. 7 in Strong Woman Stories: Native Vision and Community Survival, Lawrence and Anderson Eds., 2003.

Avatar

I saw Avatar a few days ago and I want to write a few comments about it while it is relatively fresh.

The basic plot of the movie is that in 2150 a mining company from Earth is exploiting the natural resources of a planet called Pandora, which has an indigenous population called the Na’vi. Cameron I think makes more than a token effort to understand and portray the worldview of the Na’vi (i.e. ‘indigenous’ (North American) worldviews in general),  including the significance and meaningfulness of ceremonies, a holistic view of relations with other animals (i.e. the idea of all our relations), etc.  I suppose what I mean is that Cameron seems to have at least tried (and I don’t know if he succeeds) to show how ways of being typically associated with ‘primitiveness’ are actually commensurate with and not inferior to the way of being that has developed out of Western-Europe (capitalism, separation of human and nature, ‘rationality’, ‘modernism’, etc.).

My first criticism is an obvious one, which is to ask why the Na’vi in the end need a white foreigner to lead them to victory. This white man is somehow able, in the space of three months, to absorb all of the Na’vi’s cultural values and knowledge, and to have a special connection with their planet/deity which allows him to call it to their aid where the spiritual leader of the Na’vi failed.

Also suspect I think is the way that Cameron explains the Na’vi’s special connection with their planet and the other lifeforms on it. The Na’vi have can make literal, physical, synaptic connections with other beings via some sort of nerve endings mixed in with their hair. The human scientists discover that not only can this direct synaptic connection be made between the Na’vi and other beings, but in fact a giant network of synapse-like fibres covers the planet, making it essentially a giant brain–in other words the planet it self is literally conscious. As cool as this is, my issue is that Cameron makes the deep mental/spiritual connection between Pandorians empirically verifiable in a way that gives it credence with the human scientists, and also, importantly, with the human audience in the movie theatre. I suppose my concern is that the mental/spiritual connection would be less believable or palatable to ‘movie audiences’ if it weren’t made explicitly empirically verifiable. While I do like things to be empirically verifiable, or at least I find them easier to believe if they are, I don’t believe that empiricism is necessarily the be all and end all. In terms of the Na’vi, I don’t believe that their connection with other Pandorans and Pandora itself would be any less significant or any less ‘real’ if it was not as empirically verifiable as Cameron makes it in the film. And, since the film is a thinly veiled parable for the conquest and misunderstanding (or non-understanding) of Native Americans by Europeans, my concern is that by making the spirituality of the Na’vi so empirically verifiable it undermines any possibility that the film would help viewers to understand Indigenous spirituality. From my limited experience with and understanding of indigenous ’spirituality’, its believers/followers/practitioners believe (or, indeed, know) that their connections to other beings and forces (including causal connections, e.g. influencing weather through ceremonies) are very much ‘real’, just as the Na’vi know this, but, unlike with the Na’vi, their connections cannot be simplified or distilled into a narrow empirical western-scientific explanation of the world and of events.

Wade Davis Massey Lectures

I have been listening to, and enjoying immensely, this years Massey Lectures by Wade Davis. Actually, the first lecture I did not enjoy so much, as it seemed to be put in as a nod to western science–it focuses largely on, I think the term was, genetic anthropology. Apparently, using information from  human genes, scientists can trace the broad migration patterns out of Africa of all peoples of the Earth. Anyhow, the lectures are great, and I am looking forward to hearing the fifth and final part.

http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey.html

American Indian Thought

For the class I am taking on Indigenous Thought, I have been reading recently a book called American Indian Thought, which is a collection of essays written by Native American scholars about divergences between European and Native American philosophical traditions. This book is especially interesting to me given that I studied (European) philosophy at Dalhousie, and so I can relate to how different the answers (or even the questions themselves) are to common philosophical questions. That being said, I think it is worth reproducing here a notable section in the course syllabus, included as a warning for people like myself who’s understanding of the world relies on different assumptions than those held by those raised with an indigenous perspective:

“Due to the nature of the material studied, students may encounter information and perspectives that are new to them and which challenge their views of Canadian society and history. This may create a sense of confusion or discomfort.”

The sense of confusion and discomfort is all the more true when it comes to philosophical matters, more than political/historical ones. By this I mean that I can relate to and understand criticisms and pronouncements of the Canadian colonial establishment. That Canada is a nation founded on and to some extent sustained by racist, empirialistic, and colonial practices is an idea that I can understand, I think, even though I have never experienced the malicious side of the Canadian state (belonging as I do to the (white) settler majority). However, completely different is, for example, an indigenous idea of epistemology. In Western thought or science specifically (or really in “rigorous” thinking/analysis) the objective is to isolate variables in order to be unbiased, objective, precise, and to formulate general theories based on specific proofs.  Consider the following quotation:

“Now, in Western philosophy, it is generally thought that truth and knowledge are not conducive to our ends, but are ends in themselves. Truth and knowledge are capable of guiding and shaping our action rather than being guided and shaped by it. But for American Indian thought this is clearly not the case. Knowledge is not a thing in the world that we can discover. Knowledge is not such that if we just peer into the world long enough or just sit and think long enough, it will come to us in all of its unabated glory. Knowledge is shaped by human actions, endeavors, desires, and goals….Knowledge can never be divorced from human action and experience.” (21)

For this reason, “American Indian philosophers see the act of displacing oneself from the world in order to do philosophy not only as unnecessary but as highly problematic…” (21) And so, “in American Indian philosophy we must maintain our connectedness, we must maintain our relations, and never abandon them in search of understanding, but rather find understanding through them.” Thus, relatedly, the individualistic assumptions in Western-European epistemology/ontology, epitomized in Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, for American Indians would be replaced by sumus ergo sumus, “We are, therefore, I am.” This is easy enough to read, but when you (or I) think about its implications for all of the things which we (Westerners) hold to be true, it can be, as the syllabus warns, discomforting. The idea of personal identity being rooted in our common humaness would, I think, undermine any possibility of personal responsibility, which is the key premise for, among other things, British law, Capitalism, or even our general ideas of morality.  (Afterall, how can I, as an individual, be held responisible for murdering someone if who I am is only because we are. In other words, I am only I, because we are we.)

Having thought about this for a half hour, perhaps I will go do the work I’m meant to be doing….

Iroqouis Confederacy, Black Elk, and Keith Basso

In the course on Indigenous history/philosophy that I am taking we have read in three different areas so far. The first week, we read about the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) system of government, also known as the great binding law. Some scholars trace the founding document of their Confederacy (between 5 nations, now 6) back to the year 1142. I’m not sure what I have to say about the document itself, other than that it is very detailed, and contains a number of checks and balances to ensure smooth and equitable relations between the nations of the confederacy.

That week we also read about Handsome Lake, a Seneca religious figure from the late 18th/early 19th century. After a life of alcohol abuse lack of personal fulfilment, near death, he had a vision, which inspired a new religion called Gaiwiio. This religion was/is basically Christian in content, though it sees European Christians as corrupted largely as a result of the evils that they brought to and encouraged in the “New World.” The movement helped to ensure the survival of Iroquois traditions and values (albeit with a new Christian dimension) in the face of increasing alcoholism linked to the pressures of expanding white settlement. The religion is still prominent within several six nations communities to this day.

More interesting, to me at least on a personal level, was the reading from this week (now last week), a book called Wisdom Sits in Places, by Keith Basso. Where to begin…Basically Basso is a white ethnographer (anthropologist) who spent many years living with the Western Apaches around a town called Cibecue. Over the course of his time there he discovered that the Apaches some different ideas about wisdom and its relationship to “the land.” I want to get this post done now, so I will summarize. Basically the Apache’s attach descriptive names to specific places. These names evoke a story, and this story will have some moral wieght to it. So, if someone is acting out and the community needs to remind him or her of the community’s values, they would just say the name of a place to that person, for example, Tree-by-water-over-rocks. Then that person will think of the story attached to that place, and hopefully remedy his/her actions appropriately. Not only this, but whenever the person is near Tree-by-water-over-rocks in the future she will remember her previous indiscretion. An interesting aspect though is that the stories of places are believed to be sacred in a way because when you tell a story you are imagining yourself in the place where ancestors would have experienced the story originally and using the words that they would have used to describe the event, thus you are in a way channeling the ancestors. Also, because if you are reprimanded by a place-name-story you see it there for the rest of your life, and so they refer to stories as “stalking” or hunting people, because they follow you around for the rest of your life. Also, the title of the book “wisdom sits in places” refers to the way in which community members can achieve wisdom, namely by learning the names-stories of many many places and being able to call up appropriate stories, and thus the wisdom of the ancestors. This can give wise people predictive abilities. More importantly, the connection between place-name-stories and wisdom, shows the literal connection between community knowledge and physical places. I am not capturing very well the essence of the concept, but people can borrow the book from me if they want to learn more…